No Passing Fancy
Some proposals take a little time to get just right—not unlike some quarterbacks. Consider St. Louis Ram Kurt Warner, 28, who a mere five years after stocking shelves for minimum wage has become the highest-rated passer in the National Football League—and the sweetest success story in sports. Emerging from the obscure indoor Arena Football League, the 6'2" Warner threw for an amazing 41 touchdowns to lead the Rams to a 13-3 record—the second best in the NFL—making them a favorite to reach the Super Bowl on Jan. 30. "We have an unselfish group of guys and an unselfish leader in Kurt," says Rams coach Dick Vermeil. "He has an ego, but it's not big. He simply believes in himself."
The unflappable Warner credits that confidence to faith and family. A fervent Christian who holds a weekly Bible-study class in his home, he doesn't smoke, drink or swear, and once spent the moments before a big game painting his daughter Jesse's fingernails. "He's a great father, great husband, great friend and great player—probably in that order," says teammate Tom Nütten. Warner certainly dotes on Zach, 10, and Jesse, 7, whom he legally adopted after marrying Brenda in 1997, as well as on their 15-month-old son Kade. "The kids mean everything to me," says Warner. "They are my life."
His own parents—Gene Warner, now 52 and a phone-company supervisor, and Sue, 51, a clerk for a plastic-bag manufacturer—divorced when Kurt was 5, and he was raised primarily by his mother in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (His father later remarried.) Ferociously competitive even then, Warner "always kicked our butts when we played sports with him," recalls his stepbrother Matt Post, 31. Still, as a quarterback at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, "I sat on the bench for three seasons," Warner says. But his college years weren't a total wash: In 1992 he met Brenda, a divorced ex-Marine, at a country-music club. "I'm 25 and the mother of two," Brenda says she told him that night. "I can understand if I never see you again." Warner was at her door the next morning.
Since that day, he has helped her through some difficult times. Her son Zach suffered brain damage after falling on his head as an infant and is now legally blind. In 1996, Brenda's parents were killed when a tornado tore through their Mountain View, Ark., home. "Kurt had been close to them too," says Brenda. "He was by my side."
As was Brenda by Kurt's when the going got tough for him. In 1994 he failed a tryout with the Green Bay Packers and wound up stocking shelves at a Cedar Falls grocery store until the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League hired him in 1995. Warner threw for 183 touchdowns in three seasons and was signed by the NFL's then-lowly Rams in 1997. He played only three minutes his first year, but when the starting quarterback was injured before this season, Warner stepped in and turned the club around. "Once they allowed me to just play," he says, "it became my team."
And while Warner still works for minimum wage—$250,000, the NFL minimum for second-year players—he's in line for a multimillion-dollar contract renewal. He and Brenda, a nurse, live in a four-bedroom frame house in a St. Louis suburb. They donate time and money to the nondenominational St. Louis Family Church, as well as to Camp Barnabas, a Christian retreat for sick and disabled children in Purdy, Mo.
Whether or not Warner leads the Rams to Super Bowl glory, it's a safe bet he'll remain the same thoughtful guy—albeit one who doesn't much care for housework. "If I say 'Clean the bathroom,' it means he flushes the toilet," says Brenda. But hey, Kurt Warner came late to success; if any man can learn, this is the one.
Grant Pick in St. Louis